The waitress at Sorabol wheels a stainless-steel cart to us and strong-arms a wok and a small gas burner onto our table. The wok is so full that crimson waves on the surface of the broth threaten to slosh over onto the table, and I pull back slightly until the red tide ebbs. With a couple of clicks she lights the burner, then lays a stack of bowls and spoons next to it. Whooshing blue flames quickly bring fat bubbles to the surface. Crenellated chrysanthemum leaves form an island in the center of the broth, ringed by the upper crests of obese mandoo (potsticker-shaped dumplings). They look like nurse sharks circling an island of greens, anticipating that something edible will fall off as the stalks wilt. My friends and I, too, eye the wok hungrily, but in the meantime we pick from nearly a dozen bowls of banchan—cabbage kimchi and sweet-sharp pickled radish, creamy potato salad and cubes of brown acorn jelly—for the 10 minutes it takes the waitress to return and deem the junggol ready to serve.
Wintertime is hot-pot season, the time to gather around a cauldron of soup, inhaling its aromatic steam, chopsticks diving to pluck out specific morsels like storks prowling the shoreline. Like Vietnamese lau, Chinese huo guo, and Japanese nabe, Korean junggol (or jonggol or jeonggol, depending on the transliteration the restaurant uses) offers an ancient pleasure, campfire cooking with comfortable seats. Many of the menus at Shoreline and Lynnwood’s Korean restaurants have sections for these stews, priced for two or more diners and finished at the table. To pass over them in the spring and summer is being respectful of the season. To ignore them in winter is foolishness.
Korean cuisine is full of homey stews called jjigae, many of which are simply water flavored up with fermented-soybean doenjang or the chile paste called gochujang. Junggol is jjigae elevated to the nth, a party dish rather than what you eat for lunch. “Junggol originated from the royal kitchen,” says Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall, author of Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen. “Junggol is more elaborate, with very special ingredients. It looks easy for the host and the guest alike, but it takes a lot of preparation beforehand.” That’s because the word means “blanched vegetables,” and the pot that the host brings to the table contains semi-cooked meats and vegetables in a rich broth.
That said, junggol can contain any number of ingredients. Some intel recently came my way regarding an amazing soondae junggol at Green Garden in Shoreline, made with fresh blood sausage. Lynnwood’s venerable Ka Won serves a satisfying seafood hot pot brimming with an entire aquarium’s worth of food: mussels, oysters, a dismantled Dungeness crab, one whole octopus, and bouquets of halibut intestines.
The year-old Sorabol is almost opulent with its cherry-wood booths, its two-story vents for barbecue smoke, and its cavernousness broken only by us and a business party smiling at one another over grilled meats and shots of soju. Its menu offers a half-dozen stews with everything from tripe to tofu. We order the most Westerner-friendly junggol on the menu, with beef and pork-and-cabbage mandoo, and find it filled with vegetables—scallions, onions, zucchini, enoki mushrooms—and plump udon, which snake their way out of our ladle as we spoon out bowls. The waitress comes by several times to worry over whether we find it too spicy, but the gochujang barely clears out sinuses, even as the broth reduces and concentrates over the flames. Instead, infused with the floral aroma of the chrysanthemum leaves, the spicy soup is almost delicate.
Here’s a syllogism for you: All junggol are hot pots, but not all hot pots are junggol. A popular postwar dish cooked tableside in the same burner-wok combo is called budae jjigae, or army-camp stew. You can find the sweet-spicy stew—infamous for the Spam, hot dogs, and ramen noodles it often contains—at Lynnwood’s Sam Oh Jung or Federal Way’s Chang-Ahn Jung. And at Hae-Nam Kalbi & Calamari, the restaurant’s star dish is a hot pot transliterated as oh-bul-sah. The Shoreline restaurant (spawned from a Seoul institution) is nowhere near as popular as it was 18 months ago, when you’d need a reservation to get a seat in one of the wood-paneled private rooms and a modicum of patience to get seated at the long, quasi-communal tables. But though Hae-Nam’s banchan isn’t nearly as vividly flavored as it used to be and the place is at one-third capacity now, the oh-bul-sah remains the reason to go. In fact, most of the parties around you will be dishing out food from low-sided, flat-bottomed black pots, cast-iron pans without handles.
The oh-bul-sah contains whorls of thinly shaved bulgogi (marinated beef), skinny purple squid tentacles, and thick chunks of squid bodies with scallions and gray potato-starch noodles. As the opaque red liquid in the pot reduces into a thick sauce, the noodles transform into transparent, gelatinous lengths that soak up the broth and wriggle around the bowl, almost impossible to corral into your mouth. As the dish cooks down, the calamari tends to toughen up, but its sweetness disperses into broth and fuses with the beef, and the sauce becomes unctuous. If you and your friends are able to finish your hot pot, the waiters will add white rice to the pan and fry it up with the rest of the sauce. But that’s a job for four ambitious diners.
In fact, don’t believe any menu that tells you junggol serves two. It’s party food indeed. Two of us order the most expensive hot pot on the menu at Sam Oh Jung in Lynnwood, and $33 brings us enough stew to feed five. If the crowds have abandoned Hae-Nam, it’s because they’ve headed to this attractive strip-mall bistro. The two servers on duty are so rushed that they only catch you when you press the call button on the corner of your table.
Sam Oh Jung lists a seafood junggol and a mixed beef and octopus hotpot, but it is the black-goat junggol listed at the bottom of the specialties page, almost like a footnote, that catches our attention. It’s a winter dish par excellence, and while some claim that black goat is particularly good for the manly forces, Hepinstall says that the stew’s tonic properties apply to women as well.
The broth in the wok is more the color of an Irish stew than a Chinese wedding dress. Once the fire is lit, all the ingredients carefully arranged on top sink into the murk—the slices of lean goat meat and scallions melt down, curly tubes of goat intestine grow slightly less chewy (they’re easy to pick out if intestine isn’t tonic enough for you), and the shiso leaves (described as wild sesame in the menu) darken and lose their bright almond-tinged fragrance, tasting only of subtle mint. The broth has a rich, grassy-grainy tinge to it that comes from ground perilla seeds, so when you roll the slivers of meat into the dipping sauce, its chile paste, mustard seeds, perilla seeds, and a touch of vinegar take off in a dozen different directions. As the broth burbles away, growing darker and richer, we dip, chew, and sip, then reach our chopsticks into the steam once more.